Re-living the Francona Years

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Re-living the Francona Years

Last night, in the shadow of the Celtics fifth straight loss and amidst the lingering pain of our annual Patriots hangover, I plowed through 1,513 tiny iBook pages worth of Francona: The Red Sox Years.

The book, co-written by the former Sox manager and the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, is both an easy and important read for Boston fans. Honestly, if you were affected even one iota by the 2004 title, if you've been offended even slightly by the recent behavior of this current ownership group, if you're even remotely jaded by the state of this organization and want a better understanding of how and why everything unfolded the way it has, this book is worth your time. As someone who's been openly, sometimes excessively critical of Shaughnessy's recent newspaper work, I feel like I can say that from a fair and balanced place. Although, considering I'm the same guy who consistently refers to John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner as the Three Stooges in my columns, perhaps there are certain biases at work.

Anyway, there's already been a ton written about Francona, after a few excerpts came out last week and the entire book was released on Tuesday. And most of it has focused on two major themes.

1. Ownership: Both Francona and Theo Epstein are very candid about the highs and mostly lows of dealing with Henry (who unsurprisingly, exists almost entirely by way of e-mail), Werner (who comes off as the most disingenuous member of the trio) and Lucchino (who's portrayed as every bit the egomaniac that his reputation would suggest). In fact, most of the stories involving ownership merely reiterate what we already suspected about the motivations and priorities inside Yawkey Way. Still, it's interesting to learn about the specifics.

The end of the book focuses almost entirely on Francona's relationship with ownership in the aftermath of September 2011, but none of it is very groundbreaking. There's no deeper insight into who may have leaked the manager's dirty laundry, and most of the conversations have already been reported in some capacity. The relationship leading up to 2011 is far more captivating.

2. Manny Ramirez: There are some unbelievable Manny stories in this book. Hilarious stories that build on the already mythical legend of Manny Being Manny like when the Cardinals accused him of stealing signs in the 2004 World Series, and Manny responded (eventually) by admitting that he didn't even know his own team's signs.

But there are also a few seriously messed up stories. Stories beyond him attacking Jack McCormick, that show despite the goofy persona a darker, legitimately evil side of Manny. Francona recalls numerous conversations with veterans players (Varitek, Damon, Mirabelli, Ortiz) where they'd almost helplessly try to figure out ways to deal with someone so selfish and corrupting, yet equally irreplaceable. Ramirez: The Red Sox Years would be the greatest book of all-time.

But there's much more to Francona: The Red Sox Years than Manny and the owners. Believe it or not, there's also a ton of insight into Francona who he is, how he approaches the game, why he manages the way he does and even why he's been so vengeful and unforgiving in light of everything that happened. I think Theo Epstein summed it up best when he said:

Tito loves baseball. He loves the game. He physically loves the clubhouse. Emotionally, I think he loves to let go of the outside world. Some people compartmentalize the job. Tito compartmentalizes the real world, throws himself into the clubhouse, loves every aspect of the clubhouse. He loves being down there and loves nakedness, vulgarity. Loves joking around, loves busting peoples balls, loves playing cards. He loves everything about it. Its part of the fabric of who he is.

Through it all, you come to understand why Francona's approach was initially so effective, and also why it ultimately fell apart. You also learn about the absolute insanity of managing in Boston. How Francona came to dread stopping at red lights, because it invariably led to some sort of critique or pep talk from the guy in the car next to him. How he used to sneak off and eavesdrop on Joe Maddon's media sessions and be blown away by how easy Maddon had it.

There's a lot about Francona's relationship with Theo, and just Theo in general. How invested and involved he was on a day-to-day, almost pitch-to-pitch basis. How there was a time when he'd wait in Francona's office after every game, ready with rapid fire questions on a multitude of Tito's in-game decisions. Of course, Shaughnessy goes pretty deep into the power struggle between Epstein and Lucchino, but I was far more interested in who Epstein was away from all that drama. Times when, despite his Doogie Howser existence, the GM was still just a fiery, young kid.

For instance, did you know that after the Sox were blown out in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, Epstein was so distraught that he went back to a buddy's apartment, forced himself to watch a replay of the Grady Little game, got wasted on vodka tonics and passed out on the couch? I didn't. And even better, after the Sox won Game 4, the vodka tonics became somewhat of a superstition, leading to Epstein being hungover for most of those four nights in October.

Honestly, as a fan, everything about the 2004 season is pretty awesome. Who knows how that year would have been remembered had one of numerous things gone differently, but the love that Francona and Epstein have for that crew is off the charts. Everything they say about that season only adds to the legend and makes you miss those days even more.

The early days of Pedroia, Lester and Papelbon are remembered just as fondly. Francona also delves into the legacy and psyches of guys like JD Drew, Edgar Renteria and Keith Foulke. There are so many stories, just stupid clubhouse stories that will make you laugh out loud. Like the time Francona found an old picture of Johnny Pesky wearing nothing but his underwear and used it to taunt Pesky with lines like: "I've got the only framed Johnny Pesky picture with his balls hanging on the floor."

Obviously, after the second championship, the book takes a turn. All the fun is replaced by depression and drama, and we see every inspiring character Francona, Epstein, Ortiz, Lester slowly morph into their own separate monster. Everyone loses control, and we end up where we are today.

And there's no question that the owners are responsible more making the whole experience at least 100 times worse. But after reading this book, I'm less inclined to blame them AS MUCH for the downfall of this team.

I've mentioned this concept already this week in regards to the Patriots and Celtics, but do you realize how hard it is to contend for a title every single year? It's impossible. And when the Sox started to fall short, the owners reaction was short-sighted and selfish, and only made things worse. But it was already bad. It wasn't all them.

Was it the owners fault that Ortiz hit a wall for two seasons? That Ellsbury, Youkilis and Pedroia all lost significant time with injuries? That Ortiz busted into a press conference and threw a tantrum over one RBI? That Tim Wakefield became obsessed with 200 wins? That Mike Lowell went from being one of the foundations of that clubhouse to just another disgruntled veteran? That Josh Beckett infected the pitching staff?

And even if their motives were slightly off, can we really fault the Three Stooges for spending all that money on Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez? Even if they overpaid, how angry can you be when an owner opens his wallet for two of the consensus best players in baseball?

It gets to the point where you find yourself asking the question: How different would we remember these guys, or this entire era, if not for September 2011? What if the Sox had won just one more game? What if they won five more games?

We forget how dominant that team was before the collapse, and how happy we all were with the state of this team. If not for one or two losses in September 2011, Francona might still be here, Theo might still be here, and we'd have a hard time getting too worked up over ownership's ridiculous behavior.

That's one way to look at it. Another one is this, courtesy of story told to Shaughnessy by former Sox CCO Mike Dee about the 2004 World Series parade.

"I was on the same Duckboat as Terry," Dee said. As we were going from the street to the water, fans were congratulating him and telling him how great he was, and he told them: 'If not for one stolen base, I'd probably have been fired!

And it's true. Looking back at the last eight years there are countless things that could have gone differently that would changed everything. So many "what-ifs" that would render the current state of the Red Sox unrecognizable.

But for a deeper, emotional, and mostly entertaining recap of what actually did happen, Francona: The Red Sox Years gets the job done.

At the very least, it's welcomed a diversion from the Patriots and Celtics.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

NEW YORK - There won't be any wild pitches on intentional walks this season.

The players' association has agreed to Major League Baseball's proposal to have intentional walks without pitches this year.

"It doesn't seem like that big of a deal. I know they're trying to cut out some of the fat. I'm OK with that," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.

While the union has resisted many of MLB's proposed innovations, such as raising the bottom of the strike zone, installing pitch clocks and limiting trips to the mound, players are willing to accept the intentional walk change.

"As part of a broader discussion with other moving pieces, the answer is yes," union head Tony Clark wrote Wednesday in an email to The Associated Press. "There are details, as part of that discussion, that are still being worked through, however."

The union's decision was first reported by ESPN .

"I'm OK with it. You signal. I don't think that's a big deal," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "For the most part, it's not changing the strategy, it's just kind of speeding things up. I'm good with it."

There were 932 intentional walks last year, including 600 in the National League, where batters are walked to bring the pitcher's slot to the plate.

"You don't want to get your pitcher out of a rhythm, and when you do the intentional walk, I think you can take a pitcher out of his rhythm," Girardi said. "I've often wondered why you don't bring in your shortstop and the pitcher stand at short. Let the shortstop walk him. They're used to playing catch more like that than a pitcher is."

Agreement with the union is required for playing rules changes unless MLB gives one year advance notice, in which case it can unilaterally make alterations. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope Tuesday that ongoing talks would lead to an agreement on other changes but also said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Some changes with video review can be made unilaterally, such as shortening the time to make a challenge.

"I know they were thinking about putting in a 30-second (limit) for managers to make a decision," Francona said. "I actually wish they would. I think it would hustle it up and if we can't tell in 30 seconds, maybe we shouldn't be doing it anyway."

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

As if there weren’t enough storylines with the 2017 Red Sox, there figures to be the lingering possibility that, at any point, one of the franchise’s greatest hitters will return to make a push for his fourth World Series title.

As Pedro Martinez keeps saying, he won’t believe David Ortiz is retired until season’s end.

And with that possibility comes a good ol’ fashioned sports debate: You’re maybe the biggest lunatic in the whole wide world if you’re hoping for the latter.

There are exactly two potential downsides to Ortiz coming back. One is that the team would be worse defensively if it puts Hanley Ramirez in the field, a tradeoff that seemingly anyone would take if it meant adding Ortiz’ offense to the middle of the order. The other is that we would probably have to see Kenan Thompson’s Ortiz impression again . . . which, come to think of it, would be the worst. Actually, I might kill myself if that happens.  

All the other drawbacks are varying degrees of noise. It basically boils down to the “what if he isn’t good?” fear. Which may be valid, but it shouldn’t be reason enough to not want him to attempt a comeback.

Ortiz is coming off a 38-homer, 127-RBI 2016 in which he hit .315 with a league-best 1.021 OPS. It's probably the best final season of any hitter over the last 50 years.

We also know Ortiz is 41 and dealt with ankle and heel injuries so vast in recent years that he was “playing on stumps,” according to Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek. There is the possibility that he was almost literally on his last legs in 2016 and that he doesn’t have another great season in him.

Unless Ortiz is medically incapable and/or not interested in returning, what would the harm be in rolling the dice? Is it a money thing? It really depends on just how intent the Sox are on staying under the luxury-tax threshold, but it’s hard to imagine that holding them up given that they’ve bobbed over and under the line throughout the years.

The one unacceptable argument is the legacy stuff, which expresses concern that Ortiz would tarnish his overall body of work if he came back for one last season and was relatively ineffective.  

If you think that five years after Ortiz is done playing, a single person will say, “Yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer; it’s just a shame he came back that for one last season,” you’re absolutely crazy. The fact that one could dwell that much on a legacy shows how much they romanticize the player, meaning that in however many years it's the 40-homer seasons, and not the potentially underwhelming few months in 2017, that will stand the test of time.

But he’ll have thrown away having one of the best final seasons ever for a hitter.

Oh man. That’s a life-ruiner right there. A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion totally becomes just another guy if you take that away.

Plus, the fact that he’s a DH limits how bad it could really be. You won’t get the sight of an over-the-hill Willie Mays misplaying fly balls in the 1973 World Series after hitting .211 in the regular season. Ortiz will either be able to hit or he won’t, and if it’s the latter they’ll chalk it up to age and injuries and sit him down. Any potential decision to put him on the field in a World Series would likely mean his bat was worth it enough to get them to that point.

The Red Sox, on paper at least, have a real shot at another title. Teams in such a position should always go for broke. Ortiz has absolutely nothing left to prove, but if he thinks he has anything left to give, nobody but the fans who dropped 30-something bucks on T-shirts commemorating his retirement should have a problem with that.